The best movie at the seventh annual Santa Fe Independent Film Festival held last month was made in 1974. Honoring the star of the film, “A Woman Under the Influence,” Gena Rowlands, for a Lifetime Achievement Award on the last night of the festival, the highlight of the evening was the riveting 41-year-old movie that focuses on the deterioration of the mentally ill brain of Mabel, wife and mother of three.
Rowlands, who won an Academy Award for her performance, answered questions from the audience before the film and about her marriage to the late John Cassavetes, who wrote and directed “A Woman Under the Influence” and also won an Academy Award for the film. “I didn’t want a husband when I met him,” laughed Rowlands, who at 85 still looks stunning, “but I fell in love with him — sometimes I wanted to kill hm but I still loved him.”
The two were determined to make “A Woman Under the Influence” as an independent film at a time when most movies were Hollywood studio productions. They so believed in it that they mortgaged their home to make it. Originally, Rowlands divulged, Cassavetes wanted the story to be a live play, but it was “so complicated and so exhausting,” the actress noted, “that I said ‘John, no kidding; not onstage’ I couldn’t have done it onstage five times a week. It remains my favorite film.” Singer/songwriter Juliana Hatfield found the movie so powerful when she saw it in the 1990’s that she wrote a wrenching song called “Mabel,” for her album “Become What You Are,” about the main character in the movie.
The Santa Fe Independent Film Festival has grown so large since it was originally nicknamed “the young Sundance” that it now fills five days, screens more than 100 films in three different theaters, and includes panel discussions, book signings, parties and readings. There were both student and professional short films included in the five days. One of the latter, called “Boxeadora,” tells the story of a female boxer who lives in Cuba and is passionate about her sport, and very good at it, but because she is a woman, is not allowed to compete outside of her country.
The “spotlight” film of the festival, the supposed highlight, “The Seventh Fire” directed by Jack Riccobono, was a documentary about a Native American gang leader on a remote Minnesota reservation. Mostly filmed in the prison where Ojibwe tribe member Rob Brown served 16 years for drugs and violent activity, the film is more sad than it is violent, and not at all uplifting, except for the fact that its “star,” Brown, was released one month before the festival and now claims to have changed his ways and is on the straight and narrow path to life fulfillment. Among other things, the movie shows Brown snorting cocaine in front of one of his babies and the mother of the child. When he has finished snorting, she hands him the baby so that she, too, can take her turn at the cocaine.
“I neglected my culture,” admitted Brown at a reception at La Posada Resort before the showing of the film. “I take responsibility now,” he said. “I have regret and shame, and I’m going to be a living example for my people and rectify all the bad stuff I did.” Given his life history, it’s understandable that he had a lot of “bad stuff;” He was a ward of the state and lived in a different foster home for every one of his 39 years — 39 of them in all. Once, after drinking heavily, he was the driver in a car accident that killed his two best friends. A very attractive, fit-looking man, and, although there is no mention of a wife or girlfriend, Brown is the father of six children, some of whom live with his sisters, others with his grandparents on the reservation.
“It’s a difficult movie,” noted Brown, who credits his therapist Albino Garcia of the La Placita Institute with helping him back on the road to decency. “It’s about reform, and I’m in transition and I will take the movie and share it with the world.” He indicated that rather than training another young Ojibwa in gang violence, as he was doing in the movie, he may eventually go back to his reservation and help the tribe to grow the wild rice that has always been part of their past.
Not only was “The Seventh Fire” difficult but it was terribly depressing, and confusing to boot. What does “The Seventh Fire: mean? Brown was asked at the close of the film, and he said it has to do with seven prophesies and seven fires, but could not explain any further than that, and the audience was left scratching its collective head. The world may not want to share this movie, and while it was not uplifting or educating in any way, several other films at the festival showing Native American culture were both. For example, “A Thousand Voices,” a documentary about New Mexico Native American women, directed by David Aubrey, was a fascinating peek into the role and the power of these women of the pueblos.